It is perfectly possible to get every nutrient you need from a plant-based diet. Despite this being widely acknowledged by nutritionists and medical doctors who specialize in nutrition, somehow the myth persists.
Let’s break it down.
Protein is needed for healthy enzymes, hormones and antibodies, and to build and repair muscles so it’s important we get enough. But it is really hard to be deficient in protein since almost every food – including cereals, potatoes, vegetables and fruit – contains it.
But excellent sources of protein include beans, peas and legumes, nuts and seeds, tofu and other soy products, tempeh and seitan (a low-fat, high protein meaty product made from wheat gluten).
If you eat a balanced diet that contains a wide variety of these items, as well as grains and fresh vegetables you will likely never have to worry about getting enough protein.
There are online protein calculators to work out your own specific needs (the Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is a modest 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight), but this sample meal plan would almost certainly cover your requirements:
Oatmeal with a sprinkle of almonds or seeds 12g
One hummus and falafel wrap with a three-bean salad 24g
Veggie sausages with potatoes, peas and broccoli 30g
Good plant sources of calcium include leafy green vegetables such as kale, collards, bok choi, broccoli and watercress, so incorporate these into your diet by adding them to pasta sauces, soups, stews and stir-fries.
Beans contain good amounts of calcium, and so do dried apricots, sesame seeds, tahini, almonds, Brazil nuts, dried figs and oranges. Many types of tofu are made using calcium, which makes this plant protein a great option.
You can also get good amounts of calcium from foods that have been fortified with it, including non-dairy milks, yogurts, and many breakfast cereals. Even some breads are fortified with it.
To help us absorb calcium, we need a good supply of vitamin D and we can make all that we need if we have regular exposure to the sun. Those who don’t spend a lot of time outside, who live in northern latitudes or who have darker skin, should choose dairy-free margarines, breakfast cereals and breads that are fortified with it. A lack of vitamin D is surprisingly common across all diets, so supplements may be useful, especially during the winter months.
One more tip: weight-bearing exercise helps strengthen bones.
Vitamin B12 keeps the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA. We can store up to three years’ worth of it in the liver but to make sure we don’t run out, we should be taking in 2.4mg a day in our diets (women who are pregnant or breastfeeding need more).
Plenty of vegan foods are fortified with this vitamin, including breakfast cereals, non-dairy milks and nutritional yeast (known as ‘nooch’). If this seems like it might be difficult or if you are unsure, you can simply take a daily B12 supplement. B12 is non-toxic so there is no harm in taking higher levels if you choose.
Iron is needed for healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body. Iron-deficiency anemia is not uncommon across all diets, and particularly in women who menstruate, but those who eat a plant-based diet do not appear to be any more at risk of iron deficiency than meat-eaters. There is no reason why any vegan should struggle to get enough iron if their diet is healthy and balanced.
Many breakfast cereals are fortified with iron, and oats are also a good source. Adding a handful of dried fruit and a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds to your breakfast can take a grown man to his recommended daily amount before he even leaves the house!
Legumes like soybeans, lentils, garbanzo beans and lima beans are a great source of iron and you will also find it in dark chocolate, blackstrap molasses, tofu, tempeh, quinoa and dark leafy vegetables such as watercress and kale. Almonds, Brazil nuts and sesame seeds also contain a useful amount. (Tip: eat foods that contain vitamin C to help absorb iron.)
Omega 3 is an essential fat, and we need it in our diet. While there has been much research about omega 3 and omega 6, and how they interact, the latest thinking is that it’s simply a good idea to boost our omega 3 intake.
You can do this by choosing leafy vegetables, flaxseed oil, flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, chia seeds, and hemp seed.
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